Thursday 19 July 2012

Jezebel (1938)

Jezebel is to me a difficult film. It pains me to see people act stupidly or selfishly or being mean in movies. I know, this makes many movies difficult to see and it is very unpractical when I really like watching movies, but the problem is that I really root for the character even if they don’t deserve it. And by Jove Julie does not deserve it!

Julie is a Southern princess. A spoiled girl living in New Orleans in ol’ Dixie. A place where a man’s honor is something you defend or challenge by shooting holes in some other guy and where a woman’s life is rigidly controlled by the code of society. Here Julie is the daughter of a wealthy and highly respected family and her exalted position has clearly gone to her head.

In the beginning what we see is a modern woman scoffing at the ties that tries to keep her down. She insists to fight for her liberty and do scandalous things like riding horses and show up late for her own party without changing. We are at first sympathizing with her from our modern sentiment, quickly recognizing that she is the heroine we will root for, the one who dares to step outside the norm.

Gradually we come to see that it is not some modern or educated sentiment that is driving her, but her own overblown ego. She considers herself the center of the world with full right to take what she wants and discard what she does not and manipulate others into doing her will. Some might say that she is just doing what any man does all the time; that it is only because she is a woman we object to it. That is exactly why we sympathize in the beginning until we realize that, man or woman, you just don’t treat people like that.

Julie is engaged with a fellow Southerner, Preston, who has become a banker in the North and in the course of that become progressive. A man with a drive and ambition for himself and his town. This is a problem for Julie. Any attention not directed her way is a distraction and even the slightest of her whims are more important than any other thing like career, business or just other people. When he is delayed in an important bank meeting, important to him personally and for New Orleans in general she is much offended. He promised to watch her take measurements for a dress and will have to miss it. Now I am a guy so I am hopelessly biased, but objectively: Fighting to land the biggest career boosting deal of his life bringing a railroad to New Orleans and with it the modern world or watch your fiancée take measurements for a dress. Hmmm… maybe I am missing something, but it sounds like a no-brainer to me.   

To Julie this is a grave insult. How can anything be more important to him than spending time with her? So she cooks up a cunning revenge. Instead of wearing a white gown for the Olympia ball as all unmarried women must she will wear red! A non-issue for us, but for the local society a major scandal. And it will be Prestons fault because he did not come along to take measurements. 

Preston refuses to go with her to the ball with her in that dress. She tries her old flame Buck, but he also refuses and finally she cajoles Preston into taking her anyway by appealing to his honor. At this point it is clear to both Preston and us that it matters more to her to score her small points that what anybody else feels. At the ball Preston takes her on her word and insists on showing her off, insist on defending her honor, taking her prank to the conclusion so she is the one embarrassed rather than him. Rarely has a moment of retribution felt sweeter I am ashamed to say. I also finally decided here that it was Preston rather than Julie I would throw my lot with. Henceforth she could go to hell for all I cared.

Preston breaks off the engagement and go north and when we see him again he is married to another woman. A woman with more common sense and dignity in her little finger than Julie in all her glamour. Only Julie is convinced that Preston has returned for her. How could it be otherwise? Well, she soon enough finds out that he has not. From then on everything she does are petty, insidious and jealous attacks on Preston and his wife. It gets really ugly. After Preston is called into town from Julie’s family’s plantation where they are visiting, she goads Buck and Preston’s brother into a duel and deeply embarrasses everybody else.

There is a sort of plague in New Orleans and Preston catches it. All the sick are taken to a quarantined island to die and when Preston is going to be shipped to the island Julie insists on coming along. This can be seen as her penance for the wrong she has done, that is at least the case she pleads. My own thought is that in this way she does get Preston in the end after all. Married at last, at least in her mind. But then I have also come to dislike her with a vengeance.

From all this you might think that I dislike the movie. Not so at all. This is a brilliant movie. The set and costumes are wonderful, the story is original (at least to me) and very well executed and the cast does very well, no ridiculous over-acting. But the star above them all is Bette Davis as Julie. She is so convincing, so insidious, so perfect in this role that her Oscar as best actress seem like the least they could give her.

I want to see some more with her.


  1. Now, Voyager is the film that turned me into a Bette Davis fan.

    I liked this film for the same reason you did--Bette Davis. There's more I liked, though. I liked that her actions had terrible consequences for her. I liked the payoff that she didn't get away with what she thought she could.

    1. This is exactly why I found the scene at the Olympia ball so sweet. There is in my mind some ambiguity in the last scene: Is it penance or is she getting her way in the end? I am not sure. This may not be as unselfish an act as it is touted to be.

      But you are certainly right that her ploys have made her an outcast and that is plenty retribution.

      Now I cannot wait for Now, Voyager. I must hurry up a bit.

  2. This and Now, Voyager are my favorite Bette Davis performances. However, she probably owns this role the best because she gets to show just about every emotion known to man. Unlike you, and although she is completely infuriating, I can't help but like Julie. Of course, I'm a woman, so perhaps I have more insights into her insidious ways than you do. LOL!

    1. This is hands down the best Bette Davis film I ever saw. That I do not like Julie has nothing to do with it. As you say Davis owns this role.